FOLSOM, Calif. -- Time was when Folsom Prison was pretty well unknown outside of northern California. Thanks to Hollywood, prisons like Alcatraz, San Quentin and Sing Sing got the publicity, for good or bad. Then came January 1968.
The first thing you see when you enter the Folsom Prison Museum is a huge photo of Johnny Cash. It was taken that Jan. 13, just before the singer's first concert for inmates that, when it went out on record, would give a boost to Cash's flagging career and lead eventually to his joining the ranks of music superstars.
Jim Brown, who runs the museum today (his title is operation manager), was a guard in Folsom prison in 1968 and he remembers the concert well. And in his recall, the Man in Black is permanently linked to Glen Sherley.
"Sherley was an inmate, for armed robbery, and he had written a song about the prison chapel," Brown says. "A clergyman smuggled a tape of the song out and brought it to Johnny Cash on the night before the concert. Cash liked it so much he stayed up late learning it and he sang it at the concert."
Johnny Cash (File Photo)
Sherley's Greystone Chapel was included in the album, Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison, released four months later. The album soared to No. 1 on the country charts. The single, Folsom Prison Blues, gave Cash his first Top 40 hit in four years.
Sherley, paroled the next year, went on to write more songs, one of which, Portrait of My Woman, was a hit for Eddy Arnold. Sadly, says Brown, "he couldn't adapt to life 'outside' and he committed suicide in 1978."
The Cash concerts are just one facet of the 135-year history of Folsom Prison chronicled in the museum. Many of the artifacts on display are escape tools confiscated by guards: Makeshift knives, cutlery carved into keys, hacksaw blades, fake (but you'd never know it) pistols carved from wood, plastic or even soap, a lethal spring-gun and much else.
There are nooses from hangings (the prison switched from the gallows to the gas chamber in 1937; lethal injection is now the death penalty there). There are also samples, donated by prisoners, of their artistic handiwork, including a 2.5-metre-tall Ferris wheel built from toothpicks: "A quarter of a million toothpicks," Brown says. The wheel works, but staff don't allow you to spin it.
NEED TO KNOW
For further information, check the website folsomprisonmuseum.org.
-- Prison staff love Folsom Prison Blues, but are amused at the various literary licences taken, such as "I hear the train a'coming" (no train runs near the prison); "I shot a man in Reno" (Folsom is a California state prison; a Nevada killer wouldn't be sent there); the train is "rollin' on down to San Antone" (San Antonio is in south Texas, thousands of kilometres away).
-- Artifacts wanted: There's a bill before the California legislature to build a new museum at Folsom, this one to represent prisons in both the U.S. and Canada. Says operation manager Brown: "If any Canadians can contribute artifacts, we'd love to hear from them." (His e-mail is email@example.com.)
-- Cellphones are like gold dust in "the Big House." "Guards confiscate maybe 1,000 phones a month," Brown says. "Prisoners use them to conduct illicit business on the outside. They're smuggled in by visitors and staff. You can get $500 for a cellphone so it's very tempting."
-- The 1968 concert is fully documented in the 2013 book Johnny Cash: The Life, by Robert Hilburn which, one reviewer notes, chronicles "his rises, falls, betrayals and redemption."
-- Many inmates work in one of the prison's industries. Folsom makes the licence plates for all of California's vehicles.